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Detecting Cancer at its Earliest Stages

Vadim Backman, PhD

What if you could detect cancer at its earliest stages — before there are any symptoms that would send you to a doctor? What if such a diagnostic tool existed and it was low-cost, minimally invasive and easy to use? The impact would be huge.

Vadim Backman, PhD, is closing in on this goal. By the end of 2017 he expects that the first of a series of cancer pre-screening tests will be available for use by physicians.  Backman is co-leader of the Lurie Cancer Center’s Cancer and Physical Sciences Program and the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering.

Backman and a team of researchers at Northwestern University have developed a way to identify and measure changes to a cell’s genome at the nanoscale. This means identifying the signs of cancer before a tumor even develops. Cancer doesn’t develop from a single rogue cell, but rather from a series of alterations at the molecular level. Thus, at its earliest stages, you should be able to see alterations in any cell from within the field of cancer. For instance, in the case of lung cancer, a swab from a patient’s cheek can provide the needed cell sample to determine if cancer is present.

While the technological aspect of their work is impressive, what really excites Backman is the potential human impact of what they’ve accomplished. “You are detecting disease at the very earliest stages when it is most treatable.”

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Dr. Backman’s research benefitted from substantial support from the National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute in particular, as well as the National Science Foundation.

(Last updated on September 19, 2016 )